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Alberto Contador was happy to make it through the team time trial
Pain on the bike is minimal, insists Spaniard
Even in a Vuelta a España illuminated by galacticos, Alberto Contador is by far and away the brightest star in the firmament, at least as far as the home crowd is concerned.
His surprise decision to line up in the race barely six weeks after fracturing his tibia at the Tour de France has added an additional layer of fascination to a race already rife with intrigue. Just two days in, the Contador effect has been palpable.
Ahead of Saturday’s opening team time trial, for instance, 21 out of 22 squads could warm up in relative peace, while a partisan throng huddled around the Tinkoff-Saxo bus and serenaded Contador through every pedal stroke of his warm-up with staccato chants of “Al-ber-to, Al-ber-to!”
At the start of stage 2 in Algeciras on Sunday, the loudest cheers were reserved for Contador, and throughout the afternoon, the television motorbikes were drawn to his yellow jersey like moths to light.
Externally at least, Contador has shown few ill effects from his fracture. He was able to contribute a few turns during Tinkoff-Saxo’s solid 7th place finish in the opening team time trial, while on Sunday, he finished safely in the main peloton after riding prominently towards the front in the finale, with Chris Froome (Sky) keeping a watching brief.
Speaking after the stage, however, Contador admitted that he had felt some pain in his upper shin following his efforts during Saturday’s time trial, although he was quick to stress that the aching disappeared once he was back in motion.
“It's true that I was suffering a bit this morning with my leg, but luckily on the bike the discomfort is minimal,” Contador said. “I got through the day and now I’m recovering, so I'm happy with how things are going.”
Sunday’s exposed 174-kilometre leg had the potential for echelons, but in the event, the wind whipping in off the Strait of Gibraltar was relatively benign and the overall contenders endured no scares during the afternoon.
“Initially the wind was very strong, but then it settled down. You still had to be alert, however, and I’m thrilled with the work of my teammates," Contador said.
The opening days of a Grand Tour are more often than not as much a psychological battle as a physical one, but Contador downplayed the notion that he was engaging in mind games by placing his team so prominently at the head of the peloton in the final hour of racing. He was, however, careful to repeat that he enters the Vuelta with far lower expectations than the Tour.
“In the finale, that way of riding is a habit,” Contador said. “I don’t feel comfortable when I’m at the back. I don’t have the same pressure to be in the front that I had at the Tour, but I like being up there. The team likes it too, it serves as motivation.”
It remains to be seen whether Contador’s positioning is indicative of his true condition or simply a bluff worthy of El Cid. Like Spain’s medieval hero, Contador can intimidate his rivals with his reputation alone – but that same reputation means that he will be afforded no leniency by them in the first uphill skirmishes, starting at Arcos de la Frontera on Monday.